Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Lascaux Cave is a magnificent example of early Paleolithic cave paintings that depict mainly large animals. In addition to the artwork, archaeologists found flint tools, stone lamps, palettes, evidence of scaffolding (to reach the high portions of the cave), and bone artifacts in the cave. After close archaeological study of the cave, researchers believe that the site was used over a long period of time for both hunting and religious rituals.
Unfortunately, since the cave was first discovered by a group of children in 1940, Lascaux began to deteriorate. The constant influx of viewers and the spread of destructive bacteria and fungi created serious concerns for the future of the site, ultimately leading to the closure of the cave in 1963. Despite the problems with preservation, tourists can view the cave art at a second replicated site called Lascaux II. Artists and sculptors recreated the original cave art using the same methods and tools used by the original Paleolithic painters, thus enabling visitors to view the caves without further damage.
I had heard mention of Lascaux in several of my classes in different contexts. Lascaux had been discussed in the majority of my anthropology classes, a few of my French classes, and even a mycology class. The name was floating around my head and when I decided to study abroad in France for the semester, I knew I wanted to see Lascaux for myself. Thanks to the SLU travel enrichment grant program and a generous donation from the Clare Marie Rogers Matthews Memorial Award, I was able to travel to the south of France to see the Paleolithic cave art of Lascaux II.
I left my home town of Rouen Friday afternoon and spent the rest of the day traveling by train to southern France. On Saturday I took a guided tour in French of Lascaux II and was able to see the recreated cave art. I have included a little information about what I saw and learned on the tour.
In 1940, four boys accidentally discovered Lascaux while looking for their lost dog. Not knowing what they had found, the boys waited two days before sharing the cave location with one of their teachers. Archaeologists soon discovered that the cave dated from Cro-Magnon times and displayed magnificent examples of cave art. After excavation, the cave was open to the public until 1963 when authorities declared that using the cave as a tourist site was damaging the cave art. The cave had deteriorated more in 15 years than in the 15,000 years since the Cro-Magnons used it. The crowds created changes in temperature and humidity merely by being present and breathing. Additionally, a destructive fungus was making its way into the cave by way of the foot traffic. To stop the pollution of and to preserve the cave, officials closed Lascaux to the public.
In 1983, Lascaux II, a replicate of the original Lascaux site accurate to within one centimeter, opened. Lascaux II consists of the two main rooms found in the original cave that contained 90% of the cave art. The artists recreated the paintings using materials, tools, and techniques that were used by the Cro-Magnons. The majority of the paintings are of animals, mainly horses, bulls, and deer. Interestingly, though the Cro-Magnons of southern France hunted reindeer, there are no chase scenes depicted in the art. There is also only one representation of a man and this drawing appears to be much simpler than the elaborate animal paintings. Despite being Paleolithic artwork, the paintings are incredibly expressive and detailed. There is a surprising accuracy and depth to the animals and an especially interesting painting in the cave shows two bulls superimposed on each other to represent depth. Due to the details and intricacy of the figures, Lascaux is called the Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic era. The cave was not used for habitation and the current hypothesis is that Lascaux was a spiritual site for the Cro-Magnons.
I returned safely home to my host family in Rouen after a weekend in southern France exploring Paleolithic cave art. This weekend spent traveling solo was an educationally rewarding experience as well as a personally rewarding experience. I developed my language skills and relied on my own abilities to navigate culturally and geographically through France all while discovering part of humanity's past.